Who’s Afraid of Wyclef Jean?

January 13, 2024
5 mins read


By Kito Johnson

Thursday, August 12, 2010.

Rap superstar Wyclef Jean, once recorded a song in which he claimed that ‘‘if I was President, I’d  get elected on Friday, assassinated on Saturday, and buried on Sunday.’’ So, as the former Fugees frontman filed his papers last Thursday, seeking permission to run in Haiti’s upcoming presidential elections, both he and his loved ones would be hoping that his fatalistic prediction does not indeed come back to haunt him.

Wyclef’s decision to swap the hip-hop microphone and red carpet of showbiz America, for a seat inside Haitian parliament, was always going to be a controversial one. And as Jean rolled into Port-au-Prince in a fleet of luxury cars, dressed to kill in an expensive designer suit, the actor Sean Penn, who has been resident in Haiti for the last six months assisting with the relief effort, expressed his displeasure to CNN.

‘‘I want to see someone who’s really, really willing to sacrifice for their country, and not just someone who I personally saw with a vulgar entourage of vehicles that demonstrated a wealth in Haiti that, in context, I felt was a very obscene demonstration.

‘‘This is somebody who is going to receive an enormous amount of support from the United States, and I have to say that I am very suspicious of it, simply because he, as an ambassador at large, has been virtually silent.’’

In giving an interview to the Associated Press, Wyclef Jean appeared to be taken aback by the degree of criticism leveled against him.

‘‘I just want Sean Penn to fully understand [that] I am Haitian, born in Haiti and I’ve been coming to my country ever since [I was] a child. He might just want to pick up the phone and meet, so he fully understands the man.’’

As it happens, many sharpened knives have suddenly appeared on the American scene following Wyclef Jean’s announcement. Allegations of financial impropriety have again resurfaced in relation to his charity Yele Haiti- claims which have been totally refuted by the Wyclef clan time and again. Commentators in the United States have also bemoaned Jean’s distinct lack of political experience, and cited his limited grasp of French and Creole as factors that should bar him from seeking Haiti’s highest office.

Listening to those detractors, one indeed wonders whether this is the same America who elected the mostly incomprehensible Arnold Schwarzenegger to the Californian Governor’s chair in 2003. Back then, it appeared that America had no issue with electing a man whose qualifications were largely limited to the starring role in Terminator, and being a champion bodybuilder, to be in charge of one of the world’s ten largest economies.

And isn’t this the very United States that, but for the successful campaign waged by Team Obama, would have had that barely literate Alaskan, Sarah Palin, as its deputy Commander-in-Chief? The old proverb has never held truer: Pot must be very careful before it starts calling kettle’s bottom black. Wyclef Jean will surely be wondering what in the world happened to that much trumpeted of ideologies called the ‘‘American Dream.’’

Dr Carolyn Cooper is a professor of Literary and Cultural Studies at the University of the West Indies’ Mona Campus, where she teaches African, Caribbean and African-American literature. Over the years, Dr Cooper has lectured extensively on Haitian affairs, and she  views Wyclef Jean’s decision in a very positive light.

‘‘I think Wyclef Jean is running for president because he knows he can make life better for the Haitian people. As a musician, he understands the therapeutic power of spirituality and he will draw on the deep-rooted religious convictions of his people to enable the rebuilding of the nation. He’s wealthy, so he doesn’t need to go into politics to rob the national coffers as so many criminals in the Caribbean routinely do.

‘‘Wyclef Jean’s presidency is likely to inspire other Haitians abroad to come home and contribute to the economic recovery of the island. It signifies a renewed commitment to the egalitarian politics affirmed by the deposed President Aristide: the legacy of a visionary priest revived by a spiritual musician.’’

Whatever his critics and supporters may think and say though, it will be for Haitians alone to decide whether they elect Wyclef Jean as their President. Nancy Pinthieve, a Haitian who resides in the UK, admitted to being ‘‘a bit undecided because Wyclef has no political experience.’’ Nevertheless, Pinthieve hopes that a Jean presidency will ‘‘help keep Haiti on the world stage.’’

‘‘Because of his connections, he might get things done quicker and create relationships with other countries, including those in the Caribbean, that have neglected Haiti and its needs for a long time. I think he may bring a sense of stability to the government and may create a sense of pride among the people.’’

Not all sons of the Haitian soil, however, agree with Wyclef Jean’s decision to enter politics. Gary Pierre-Pierre, editor of the Haitian Times Newspaper in New York City, thought that Wyclef had made the wrong choice.

‘‘I believe that this is the worst decision that Wyclef has ever made in his entire life. The answer to Haiti’s insurmountable problems is not through the presidency, because Haiti’s situation has been in the making for 200 years.  It’s like people thinking that Obama could erase the race issue in America, or a Prime Minister who comes from the lower class can change the class issue in England.

‘‘Wyclef is a multimillionaire entertainer, who, despite coming from the lower class in Haiti, moves around in the bourgeoisie- his Yele Haiti foundation was a bastion of the ruling class. If he gets elected, he will have to play ball with the powers-that-be, as would any other person who gets elected to the post. You don’t play ball, you don’t stick around- just ask Bertrand Aristide.’’

Despite his misgivings, Pierre-Pierre nevertheless conceded that Wyclef Jean will take some beating come the November election.

‘‘Our poll in the Haitian Times shows that Wyclef is about six points ahead at the moment, and it is not clear if he has an opponent who can beat him.’’

In 2006, Wyclef and Shakira co-produced a single which topped the billboard charts in numerous countries around the world. The song- entitled ‘‘Hips Don’t Lie’’ – went on the become the biggest grossing single in 2006, and since then, has sold more than 2 million copies worldwide.

Only time will tell whether Wyclef Jean does in fact become Haiti’s next president. If he is successful, the poor and downtrodden in that beleaguered Caribbean nation will be much more concerned about the veracity of Wyclef’s words and deeds, rather than any movement of his waist. Those of us in the outside community watch in anticipation, and wish Wyclef, the other candidates, and all the good people of Haiti, the very best of luck in their endeavours.

Kito Johnson, a Trinidadian, is a freelance journalist based in the UK. He specialises in Caribbean affairs and has written extensively for the Trinidad Guardian in his native land, as well as the Voice Newspapers and BBC Caribbean here in the UK.

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